M&Ms are for Mentors and Me

In the article in TODAY on 11 July 2009 “Ex-Mindef Scientist 1st in Asia to receive Pioneer Award” Professor Lui Pao Chuen shared how he was able to survive 41 years in the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) as a maverick.  He was talented and fortunate enough to receive the trust, blessings and support of former Permanent Secretary of Defence Peter Ho, who would simply “sign a cheque” to turn his dreams into reality.

Like Prof. Lui, I have been fortunate to have met with good mentors who have played a significant role in my personal growth thus far. I would have been a far lesser man if it hadn’t been for them. I write this to encourage each and every one of you to seek out your mentors as you embark on your long and often lonely journey of entrepreneurship.

Master Yoda mentors Luke Skywalker in the crummy swamps of TatooineWe Chinese are always on the look out for our lucky stars (贵人).  A saying goes like this – “贵人相助,事业天成”.  Loosely translated, it means your tasks are easily accomplished and careers elevated if you can meet and solicit the help of your lucky stars.  I’ve been fortunate to meet my fair share of 贵人, and while they’re nowhere as wise, illustrious, powerful or famous as Aristotle was to Alexander the Great, Freddie Laker was to Richard Branson, or Obi-wan Kenobi was to Anakin and Luke Skywalker, I count my blessings and acknowledge two of them as important mentors in my life.

To Madam, with Love

My first mentor was a teacher who went the extra mile to stretch our minds back in ’92 to ’93.  As our primary 5 and 6 form teacher, she exposed us to studying techniques, mind mapping and Edward de Bono, basic philosophy, algebra, the formal process of scientific inquiry, Broadway musicals, songwriting and softball; all at a tender age of 11 to 12 years.  She would spend her own money to purchase expensive teaching materials that went beyond the then-Primary 5 and 6 syllabuses for English, Mathematics and Science, while chartering monthly visits to the Singapore Science Centre for us to see Science in action at the laboratories and gardens.  She was responsible for igniting my life-long thirst for knowledge and inspiring me to reach for the stars.  I was a studious, obedient and bespectacled student who absorbed as much of her teachings as I could, and was left reeling with the ingenuity of her teachings while benefiting from them as I progressed through secondary (high school) and junior college (senior high) education in Singapore.

To Sir, with Love

My second mentor was my ex-boss.  Despite my love-hate relationship with him due to our contrasting backgrounds, personalities and styles, our shared passion that is Singapore was the one constant that allowed me to learn about operational effectiveness, resourcefulness and the inner workings of Singapore and its bureaucracy, and become a more dynamic and well-rounded individual.  We were so different, yet so alike.  I learned more in my first month with him than I ever did in my first year out of college, and was trusted and empowered to achieve far more than I ever could within the construct of the bureaucracy.

I‘ve tried to distill some of my experiences into the following points to help you as you seek out and work with your mentors – let me know what you think about them.  I’d also love to hear your stories with mentors in life and at work.

  1. If it fits somewhat, wear it: I’m a big believer in Fate.  Life has its ways of introducing opportunities and mentors to you.  It’s up to you to decide if you’d prefer to wait for that perfect mentor (which imho doesn’t really exist), or learn to make things work with the best ones that life presents to you.  A perfect personality fit with your mentor should be considered a bonus and not an absolute requirement.  It’s more important for both of you to share some core principles and values that binds the two of you, while serving as the foundation for transfer of wisdom and knowledge from mentor to mentee;
  2. See their strengths first, uncover their weaknesses later: Mentors aren’t perfect – they’re individuals too, with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies.  Still, your prospective mentor should possess enough pluses to keep you starry-eyed for a while; too few positives would not garner sufficient respect from you to consider him or her as a mentor, while too long a period of enamourment limits your ability to surpass and outgrow your mentor;
  3. All good things must come to an end: “天底下无不散之宴席” by choice or otherwise.  It’s important for an individual to know when they have outgrown their mentor, and that it is time for both parties to move on.

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.